Is the Civil Society Organisation (CSO) in East Africa a mere extension of the northern-INGO and its problems?
I returned from my Christmas break ready to follow developments in the INGO vs. local civil society effective-partnership dialogue that I blogged on towards the end of 2014 https://gabazira.com/2014/12/18/pitfalls-to-civ-society-partnership-wake-up-ingo/ . Recalling the debate at the meeting last year, I was eager to see mark-stones laid that would define the twin-subjects of an effective CSO and later effective CS business model.
However, comments to my blog/s and discussion with development practitioners have forced me to reconsider whether the East African CSO in its current form, is the answer to the poverty-eradication challenges we face in the region. My recent visit to Uganda and the poverty I saw, is still fresh in my mind.
I share below, and ‘verbatim’ I must add, some of the comments and conversations that are causing my change of heart. Moreover a change of heart, on the belief I have held for as long as I have understood development and a bit of ‘aid-industry-english’. As an ardent believer in the ‘effectiveness’ of people and organisations, I do not want to spend my energy discussing an ‘object’ in this case CSO, that is condemned to death by many. Among the latter many, respected development professionals.
So, what is this CSO condemnation?
i. ”Forget CSO for heaven’s sake! These are a batch of job seekers finding ground. As a social development worker, I have seen change coming from (caused by) household members, not CSOs! CSOs are middlemen and women between people and donors. Therefore, how do you empower household members to cause change from within? That will be our next discussion when we meet and discuss Sheema district!”
ii. ”The roles that … ascribe[s] to civil society are donor-ascribed roles. They would be largely rejected by civil society actors in Myanmar – where I am working now. Much more important for them are their key role in building the nation – not the state, and in carrying out what they call “autonomous civic initiatives” which are essentially people-to-people activities and programmes. These are the two areas where it is almost impossible to attract donor funds, and this is why they see the watch-dogging as a donor agenda.
iii. ‘’CSO organisations are a tool of the Western aid-architecture”
Apparently, the CSO that I have come to view as the panacea for delivering poverty-eradication solutions in East-African villages is not worth its value. Should I be judged harshly for believing the CSO doubters? In hindsight, I should acquit myself of guilt re.: over-trusting the CSO, since every time I write that CSO’s are the answer to delivering poverty-eradication solutions, I have also accompanied that sentiment with caveats such as:
”The foundation for a viable organisation and society is built around: entity-effectiveness, that is in turn built around robust and grounded strategic thinking and implementation, built around a strong-mindset to keep working and the agility to learn and change, until problems are solved. Poverty eradication is hard work…” https://gabazira.com/2015/01/14/effective-poverty-eradication-in-luuka-uganda-is-the-deve-preneur-model-the-answer/
In the above qualification, comes my belief that while the East Africa CSO may have issues today, they can be resolved by BOLD and STRATEGIC leaders out there.
If the CSO is this troubled, why is the development industry blind to the situation and can it be salvaged?
May it be the case that global aid industry does not have better alternatives than the CSO to directly deliver development? It is a plausible assumption that the aid-industry and its power-holders are simply not bold-enough to determine that they can pull the plug on the CSO (and its INGO-friend I must add) and still survive. I certainly don’t want to see the latter, partly because supporting and working for and with the CSO earns me a living. In addition, I still think that the East Africa CSO can be turned from bad to good by learning ‘effective-organisational’ habbits.
As an East-African INGO insider, I’m acutely aware that the tide is turning against the INGO and the CSO, in favour of the private-sector solution to poverty eradication. Donors, big and small are talking about private sector and its ’new’ power to deliver poverty-eradication solutions. The writing on the wall is becoming ever clearer that the CSO in its current state and its INGO-friend is not the answer to eradicating poverty, at least in this part of the world I live.
The East Africa CSO has turned out be:
– a mere link between the western donor and INGO
– a mere change of guards since the CSO has taken wholesale work in the community that until recently the INGO delivered
– a sub-contractor of the INGO
– a copy-cat of the INGO, duplicating bad habits the INGO has been accused of – i.e. liking for big vehicles in urban areas, urban as opposed to rural presence etc
– not always very mindful of the Value-For-Money principle and delivering effective development programming
But despite all the above, there is salvage for our East African CSO, and it is something you are all familiar with: the aid industry, operating as it does, is among a few lucky ones in the world, that tries various new things and when the trial/s fail, it will only try another time, and again and again! After all even in the model private sector, product development comes from research and testing. As long as the CSO keeps experimenting, it may just about survive and for a long time indeed. After all, we are talking about a very complicated problem here – poverty-eradication.
Let us be very careful, not to assume that the CSO is untouchable, especially since I know many can’t survive without western donor money. Below is some indication of a shift in development-leadership towards the private sector. Of-course, we have all heard before of public-private sector partnerships, so what is different this time?
“To the development community, ignoring the role of business in development is no longer an option. Don’t work in parallel with business when you can work together, and help businesses participate in the development push.” – Justine Greening @DFID_UK
However, as we have seen again and again the CSO may, after all, be indispensable, or is it? Statements like ”…. help businesses participate in the development push…..” from global ‘aid-governers’ like J.Greening may be the indicator that as opposed to disposing of the INGO/CSO, we (read +I) may just be still in with a shout, after ‘we’ have been asked to HELP business understand poverty and development. There is something about poverty, that even me that was born in it, professors that have researched it, don’t understand – it is poverty, after all!
As i end this blog, I for some strange reason understand better, the fact that the modern CSO in East-Africa is mostly an extension of the INGO and its tentacles in the global aid architecture. The dynamics in the aid industry present like a political party undergoing succession for its leadership. The INGO is being asked to step aside from direct implementation, but be replaced by the East Africa CSO. Haven’t we then, done an excellent job of selling this ‘change of guards’ model, even without discussing its effectiveness? If there is one word the aid-industry may have effectively borrowed from the private sector of old, it may be the cartel.
Whatever causes the aid industry, INGO, and ultimately local CSO in East Africa to be what it is, there should not be room for complacence.
Is the East-Africa CSO keeping an eye on a changing and turbulent environment, plus doing enough to change itself?